• Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch

When brothers reconcile

In our tradition we have the story of the two brothers who inherit their father’s farm. They each inherited half of the farm, and they drew the dividing line along the apex of a large hill. One brother was married with children; the other, not.


One night, during the harvest season, the single brother could not sleep. In his tossing and turning, he thought, “How can I rest comfortably, taking my full yield only for myself when my brother has so many mouths to feed?” He got up and gathered up a large portion of his harvest and carted it over the hill, quietly stashing it away in his brother’s barn.


Meanwhile, the other brother also tossed and turned in his own bed. “How can I enjoy my full share of this harvest when my brother over the hill is on his own? My spouse, my children, and I are all he has. If we do not care for him, then who will?” And so, he too rose and came over the hill, depositing a portion of his yield in the other barn.


Morning dawned, and each brother went to his respective barn, surprised to find that there remained just as much food as there had been before the nighttime. Each brother was confused, each keeping the strange occurrence to himself.


Each brother continued for several more nights in the same routine: One would get up, gather a portion of the daily yield, and bring it over to his brother’s barn.


Then, one evening it happened: Each started the routine as he had the several nights prior. As they climbed the hill, they met, and they realized together the pact by which they were both living: We are to love others as we care for ourselves. Their’s was a partnership, a unification based in compassion for one another, and this value energized their righteous actions. The two brothers set down their loads, and embraced.


Our Jewish tradition teaches that because of the care each brother showed to the other, their land was designated as holy. It was at the place where the two brothers embraced that would later come to be the beating heart, sacred site of our tradition—that of Mount Moriah—where the two Jerusalem Temples would later stand.


Recalling a story of two brothers who get along is a refreshing trope when we as a community are reading through the Genesis cycle. We have much to love about the Book of Genesis and its messages. A happy, functional family is not one of them. Still, this week, we continue with the theme of care and compassion for our siblings in the reconciliation between twin brothers, Jacob and Esau.


The twins have warred with one another since they were in Rebecca’s womb, and Jacob takes advantage of his brother’s hunger, negotiating away their father’s birthright and inheritance for a bowl of lentil stew. Later, Jacob would also trick his blind father, Isaac, into giving him that blessing and birthright by dressing up like Esau. After stealing away the most precious right Esau had within the family, Jacob runs away, only to arrive at this place and this moment found in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.


This week, the two brothers encounter one another now in their adult lives. Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to let his brother know that he is nearing his brother’s land. One is never advised to show up unannounced to Thanksgiving dinner. The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming out to meet him, accompanied by 400 men marching alongside. This rightfully terrifies Jacob, and he braces for a fight. In his fright, Jacob prays, “Save me, I pray, from my brother’s hand, from Esau’s hand! I am afraid of him, lest he advance on me and strike me…”1 This prayer—one of the few prayers recorded in Torah—opens a window into Jacob’s frame of mind toward his brother. His actions also give us the sense of dread that he feels on encountering his brother after all this time: he chooses an offering for his brother and sends it to his camp.


And then he waits overnight, when in the morning, he then sees Esau coming along with the 400 soldiers in tow. Jacob goes before his brother and bows down to the ground seven times as he approaches. Esau though, does not do the same. Rather, Esau runs to his brother, and like the two in the earlier story, embraces his twin.


In this moment of embrace, Esau kisses Jacob. In the Torah, the word for kissing is written strangely. The word is v’yi-sha-qei-hu, and it has a series of dots written above it. The custom of placing dots above this word go back to antiquity, and much has been written about the meaning. One interpretation is that the kiss represents Esau’s whole-hearted and merciful embrace of his brother.2 In this moment of reconciliation, what could have been a knock-down-drag-out-fight was quite the opposite. The two brothers find wholeness with one another because they recognize in seeing each other how time has passed, how they each have changed, how their lives are no longer at odds with one another. “The reconciliation occurs because it is Israel, not Jacob, whom Esau meets, and Jacob is a new man who asks for forgiveness, if not in words then in manner, who limps toward him with repentant air and not deceitful arrogance. He is not a man to be put to the sword; he is a man who can be loved as a brother. Uncomplicated Esau, who himself has matured, senses this at once and runs to kiss his newly found brother. The two are now at peace.”3


Just like the two brothers at the top of the hill, Jacob and Esau now realize that their lives can be made more whole by embracing yet again. They are able to let the past be just that—the past. And together look toward the future.


This tension between holding onto the past and looking toward the future is inherent in any conversation around forgiveness and reconciliation. As scholar, Martha Minow, notes in her latest book, When Should Law Forgive, resentment manifests when we hold onto the past, but forgiveness emerges when in partnership parties come together to understand one another, their past actions and behaviors, and to “prioritize a shared future.”4 Resentment is a product of looking behind us; forgiveness is born out of hope and an imagination of the way one’s life can be in the future.


In Minow’s book, she considers tremendous situations in which law can provide wholeness to parties that would establish a more secure future for them. She examines the experience of past child soldiers and gang members who were coerced into criminal activity. She thinks about how the tools of bankruptcy and loan forgiveness for individuals, municipalities, and sovereign states could be used to foster a healthier economic future for those threatened by insurmountable and unbankruptable debt. And, relevantly, she considers the presidential pardon, its just use and the moral dangers inherent in the power. With each situation, she attempts to take a measured stance that is aspirational, not just punitive. After all, “punishment can never make a victim whole, so the desire for ever more punishment can spiral without limit.”5 Minow champions a practice of restorative justice whose basis is found in the model of our brothers from our two stories.


In the first story, each brother considers the conditions under which his other brother is living, and takes action to help the other. Each is motivated because he understands the experience of the other. “A precondition of forgiveness is taking the perspective of another, but it should not involve abandoning one’s own perspective and experience.”6 The one brother does not surrender his entire wealth over to his sibling. Likewise, in reconciliation, we are not asked to give over our entire beings to the other, but to share our experience with someone else.


Like Esau and Jacob, in seeing what has become of the other, they find peace with one another, because these two understand what Paul Boese would later go on to say, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”7


When we talk about just consequences for past transgressions, when a judge gives a sentence, the likely metaphor one uses is transactional. Lex Talionis operates as a transaction: If one takes an eye, we take an eye. If one takes a tooth, the judge orders the person be given the monetary equivalent for that tooth. A crime can be repaid. But that is not wholeness. Wholeness has psychological and spiritual dimensions that cannot be addressed with dollars and cents. Jacob never needed to send his brother peace offerings in advance of their meeting, because what Esau really wanted was to embrace his twin. Restorative Justice offers a different metaphor by which we can find forgiveness or reconciliation. That metaphor is the one of partnership. All of the brothers from tonight’s stories are in partnership with one another. Their fates are inextricably linked to one another. The concept and practice of reconciliation presents itself as not only a chance to foster non-punitive justice, but to provide a spiritual frame for those who did wrong and for those who were wronged. The practice of reconciliation tells anyone involved in trying to move from the trauma of a transgression that redemption and wholeness is possible.


Repair, forgiveness, repentance, restoration, and reconciliation—these are possible for each of us, on both individual and collective levels. Like Jacob, we will not always do as we should. Like Esau, we can reconcile, and embrace our brother in order to write the next chapter. Like Esau, we can suffer real harm by those whom we love. Like the two brothers on the hill, we can embrace our call to care for one another. We suffer resentment when we grasp onto the past; redemption waits for us in the future. This we express anytime we sing, “Hinei ma tov u’manayim, shevet achim gam yachad, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers can sit together.”


Shabbat Shalom.


––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

1 Genesis 32:12.

2 Sifrei 69.2.

3 Plaut, 234.

4 4.

5 25.

6 28.

7 Quoted in Minow, 163.


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